Voice of Revolt: Kamala MarKandaya
Prof. Mahesh Jani

From the ages, women writers have been undervalued for many reasons.  The patriarchal approach and the dominant male supremacy ignore the important women voice. They have been constantly struggling to find a meaningful and respectable position for themselves. However, after the independence, the role and image of women writers has undergone a sea change. Indian women writers like Toru Dutt, Shashi Despande, Rama Mehta, Indira Ganesan, Chitra Banerjee,Arundhati Roy, Ruth Pawar Jhabwala, Kamala Das, Tara Patel, Bapsi Sidhawa,Shobha De, just name a few, who hold their own in the women writer’s world of initial rejection, dejection, familial bonds and social persecution. Indian women writers in English, especially, novelists have been presenting women as the centre of concern in their novels. Woman’s search for identity, status, and individuality is a recurrent theme in their fiction. Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004)is one of the finest and most distinguished Indian women novelists in English of the post-colonial era who is internationally recognized for her masterpiece, Nectar in a Sieve published in 1954. She received worldwide distinction by winning Asian prize for her literary achievement in 1974.Endowed with strong Indian sensibility, she depicts women’s issues and problems very deeply in her fiction.

A woman’s quest for identity and longing for self-definition finds reflection in her novels and constitutes a significant motif of the female characters in her novels. Fame and success came with her first masterpiece Nectar in a Sieve (1955), a Book-of-the-Month Club Main selection and bestseller in the United States. Her output includes; Some Inner Fury(1956), A Silence of Desire(1960), Possession(1963),A Handful of Rice(1966), The Coffer Dams(1969), The Nowhere Man(1973), Two Virgins(1974), The Golden Honeycomb(1977),Pleasure City(1983). A.V.Krishna Rao observes that in her novels Kamala Markandaya has shown the creative release of the feminine sensibility in Indian literature. Characters such as Rumani, Mira, Premela, Roshan, Sarojini, Caroline, Anasurya, Nalini, Helen, Vasantha, Lalitha and Mohini all have asserted their identity in their own way. She has traced a women’s transformation from self-sacrificing Rukmani in her first novel Nectar in Sieve to self-asserting Mohiniin her last novel The Golden Honeycomb.

Kamala Markandaya is intensely aware even self-conscious regarding her position as South Asian Women recreating, in their writing the lives of women andimmigrants.1

 Kamala Markandaya provides variety and vividness to women writing in India. For that Shashi Tharoor remarks, “Kamala Markandaya was a pioneer who influenced all of us Indians writing in English”.2 In her novels, the realistic study of a woman is reflected in the village life, cities, husband-wife relations, gender differences and conflict. Kamala Markandaya’s creative prowess as a novelist comes from her sensitive creation of individual women characters and situation, which are simultaneously representative of a mass. She is a gifted novelist with an artistic perfection and directness of expression. The realistic approach to life is the hallmark of her fiction.

With herimpeccable representational realism and innovative description of Indian arcadia, Kamala Markandaya achieves a perfect poise between the rural reality and the disciplined urbanity of art.3

I have attempted to clarify that how the feministic voice can be heard in the novels of Kamala Markandaya. The chief protagonists in most of her novels are female characters who are inconstant search for a meaning and values of life. Her stays in South Indian village before her marriage and her settlement in England after her marriage enabled Kamala Markandaya to draw a realistic picture of women of East and West. Kamala Markandaya has depicted racial conflicts, cultural differences, women hardships, temperamental disparities, and sexual perversion.  In some of her novels, she presents anexistential struggle of a woman who denies to flow along the current and refuses to submit her individual self. The woman emerging out of such situationis a detached individual sometimes undergoing much pain and suffering. Such characters exhibit a sense of insecurity due to their traumatic psychic experience and destruction of enduring values. Kamala Markandaya in her fiction traces a woman’s journey from self-sacrifice to self-realization, from self-denial to self-assertion and from self-negation to self-affirmation. Thus, we can say that the feminist voice is heard in all her novels.

Kamala Markandaya’s magnum opus, Nectarin a Sieve is a novel, which tells a story of a bold peasant woman named Rukmani who struggles against the odds of life. Kamala Markandaya depicts the picture of Indian society, with perfect skill. The author, in her very first novel, makes the narrator-heroine, Rukmani emerges a greater and stronger character than her husband, Nathan. The novel follows the life experience of a woman, who lives in the period of intense urban development and displays, Rukmani’s life, which is full of hopes and frustrations, pleasures and pains, triumphs and defeats, rise and fall.

Nectar in a Sieve is a sad story of a large poverty-stricken Hindu family in a remote village of South India. Rukmani (Ruku) married Nathan and bore a daughter Ira and six sons. Here, the writer has tried to show that before the advent of tannery, the life of Rukmani and Nathan with their family was simply peaceful with simple joys and sorrows. She was proud of the love and care of her husband, Nathan. However, Rukmani’s calm and placid life suddenly begins to change under the impact of the industrialization i.e. the establishment of tannery by an Englishman. This causes a drastic change in the life of Rukmani and her entire village. Here, Rukmani stands for the traditional values of life and so she revolts emphatically against the encroachment of the western industrial values. Then they enter a time of draught and famine. Rukmani has imbibed the spirit of acceptance and endurance. This helps her to put up with the adversity that follows the period of drought. Harrowing poverty and terrible drought lead them to the death of her younger son Raja. Her daughter Ira revolts against the false norms of traditional society because she is unable to bear the starvation of her family any more. She is forced to take resource to prostitution to save her younger brother. Under the impact of modernity and industrialism, she thinks the preservation of life more pious than the observation of so-called moral values, which fail to feed her family. The author suggests here that the spirit of resignation and stoicism strengthens one like Rukmani in times of intense suffering. However, Rukmani unstrung by the bug of industrialism displays her faith in human dignity by assimilating the destitute boy, Puli into the nectar of her love and warmth and gets him cured of his disease. Thus by infusing meaning into hid life she finds a new meaning in her life. Poverty stricken, Rukmani saw her Daughter Ira become a prostitute, her 4-year-old son Kuti diedfrom hunger, her teenage son, Raja caught stealing and beaten to death, her oldest sons Thambi and Arjun set off to Ceylon to work in plantations. But Rukmani refuses to be satisfied with her circumstances and is always hoping for something more and as the novel progresses she matures in many ways but never stops hoping. To Rukmani, it seems as if hard work is for nothing because the results of their hard work, the nectar, always seem to disappear, as if through sieve. At the end of the novel, although she has lost everything that is important to her, she manages to find hope in her expectations of what will happen after she dies. In this novel, the novelist throws light on the patriarchal nature of the society where a son is preferred to daughter. In the novel, Nathan says-

“I have waited five years,” he replied. She has not borne in her first blooming, who can say she will conceive later? I need sons”4 the entire novel, Rukmani is faced with struggle after struggle. Each time her situation worsens, but she endures them quietly, holding on the hope that things will be soon better. She boldly says-

Well and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creature sin deed to be weak, for is not a man’s spirit give to him to rise above hismisfortunes.5

Some Inner Fury (1955) is a semi-autobiographical novel and a story of a young woman in love with an Englishman in the tumultuous 1940s. It was a period, when India was fighting for independence. In the novel, Kamala Markandaya gives a very vivid and graphic account of the east-west cultural clash in the backdrop of national struggle, by projecting three wonderful female figures-Mirabai, Roshan and Premela who exhibits rare and unique virtues of love and loyalty, friendship and understanding. Here, all the females being educated they assert theirselves and individualities. For example, Mira loves Richard, an Englishman against Govind’s and her parent’s wishes. And also Premela adopts a child against Kit’s wish. In Some Inner Fury, Markandaya projects a national image and patriotic consciousness in myriad forms by presenting the peculiar sensibility of the modern educated and progressive Indian woman.

Her most achieved and characteristic novel, “A Silence of Desire” (1960) Kamala Markandaya portrays the assault of the views of western skepticism on the oriental faith of Sarojini, the female protagonist. The novel mainly stresses the internal conflicts of Sarojini. Kamala Markandaya focuses on the psychological torments of Sarojini, the heroine who is a God-fearing and religious. Her next novel Possession (1963)also reflects novelist’s preoccupation with female strength and vitality. Anasurya, the narrator is a typical Indian girl, loving and self-sacrificing who possesses all the feminine virtues. Like her creator, she is a kind of liberated woman of modern India and like Kamala Markandaya, she writes novels. In fact, she has presented a variety of female figures in Possession. A young divorcee Caroline Bell constitutes the central figure of the novel. The search for sensuous pleasures brings her to India where she comes across a young fourteen-year rustic poor boy Valmiki, a talented painter who requires patronage. She escorts him to London where his talents are flourished. However, she exploits him physically. She also brings about a separation between Valmiki and Ellie, his housekeeper. But it is Anashuya, the enlightened Indian women who saves him from crisis by arranging his return journey to India. Anashuya stands poles apart from other female figures of Kamala Markandaya. Kamala Markandaya’s fifth novel, A Handful of Rice (1966) concerns with a woman’s struggle for existence in modern society. A Handful of Rice is a story of the Ravi who initially loves Nalini. Here, Nalini is presented as an ideal female character. In her sixth novel, The Coffer Dams (1969) Kamala Markandaya highlights the character of a women Helen, the young wife of Harward Clinton, the British engineer working on a dam constructing site in India. He has a passion for his work, the dam and neglects his wife the ‘unpredictable’ Helen! He is a jealous and possessive by nature. It her next novel, The Nowhere Man (1972) Kamala Markandaya delineates the problem of identity of elderly Indian immigrant women Vasantha, she with her husband Srinivas find it not only difficult but impossible tocreate their own identity in England, the land of their adoption. Vasantha embodies the Indian traditional values and virtues of patience, tolerance, love and fellow feeling, but she dies in the end because of despair and frustration in this atmosphere of racial antagonism, leaving her husband in a state of shock. Kamala Markandaya repeats the female voice in her eighth novel, Two Virgins (1977) and The Golden Honeycomb (1977).

After analyzing all the novels of Kamala Markandaya,I can surely say that the feminine voice is heard in nearly all her novels. The one persistent theme that underlines all her novels is a constant search for identity mainly by the female protagonists. We witness an internal and external conflict in them, in their process of discerning and affirming their self-identity.

Her female character such as Rukmani, Mira, Premela, Roshan, Sarojini, Caroline, Anasurya, Nalini, Helen, Vasantha, Lalitha, and Mohini, all have asserted their identity in their own way. She has traced women’s transformation from self-sacrificing Rukmani in her first novel Nectar in Sieve to self-asserting Mohini in her last novel The Golden Honeycomb. They have been in search to locate their acceptance, place and identity. Nearly all of Markandaya’s women characters exhibit a positive and optimistic outlook on life and emerge even stronger than their male counterparts emerge. By exercising their own free will, exhibiting their own self, they get fulfillment and recognition in life. In this way, they are able to establish their true stature. It is through the technique of depicting women though male point of view, which is innovative, that Kamala Markandaya has used. She makes her male characters speak so that their comments and views may reveal the facts about women. No doubt in some cases, her male characters realize their dominance but her women character who pierce the needle into the balloon of their ego. Her male characters realize their own incapability and later on become meek and submissive to the women who make them aware and understand that they are not commodities that can be purchased, used, and thrown. According to Anil K. Bhatnagar –

Kamala Markandaya started writing novels, when India was just at the threshold of newly won freedom. Poverty, hunger and starvation, women injustices were everywhere. It goes to Kamala Markandaya’s credit that she uses fiction as a vehicle for communicating her feminine vision of life.6

She excels in recording inner working of the women minds, their personal perplexities, and social confrontations. She endeavored to portray them as individuals growing into themselves unfolding the delicate process of their being and becoming. The universe of Indian women writers in English is incomplete without its brightest star, Kamala Markandaya. To sum up, we can quote Uma Parmeshvaran.

She (Kamala Markandaya) is a pioneer writer of Indian women writers in English producing entire canon of ten novels in three decades…which portrays her positive females as ideal sufferers and nurturers in male domination.7


  1. Rustomji Roshni. And Kerns. Expatriate, Immigrants and Literature: Three South Indian Writers. The     Massachusetts Review.Vol.29, No: 4. p.g.655-665.
  2. Tharoor Shashi. Outlookindia.Com
  3. Iyengar K.R.S. “The Women Novelists” Indian Writing in English. 2nd.Ed.     New Delhi. Asia Publishing House.1973
  4. Markandaya Kamala. Nectar in a Sieve. New York: Signet Books, 1955. p.g.54
  5. _________________ Nectar in a Sieve p.g.111
  6. Bhatnagar Anil. Kamala     Markandaya: A Thematic Study New Delhi. Sarup and sons.
  7. Parmeshvaran Uma. The Writers of Indian Diaspora series. Ed.by Jasbir Jain. New     Delhi. Rawat Books.2000.

Prof. Mahesh Jani
Lecturer in English,
N.M.Shah Arts and Comm. College,

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